Skills deficit keeps Rhode Islanders unemployed

Providence, R.I. – A lack of jobs is only part of the reason Rhode Island has the nation's fourth highest unemployment rate.

The truth is jobs -- good jobs -- go begging every day because Rhode Islanders don't have the skills necessary to carry them out.

At just under 12.5 percent, Rhode Island still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Even so, many Ocean State companies are desperate for workers. A case in point: There are more than 400 jobs listed on the website of Lifespan, which operates four hospitals in Rhode Island, and sometimes has to search out of state to fill vacancies, said Vice President for Human Resources Brandon Melton.

"We've been forced to do that because of increases in our patient population and the fact that we don't have a sufficient number of health care professionals in the area," Melton said.

The Providence-based Vaccine research company Epivax has the same problem, according to manager Clifford Grimm.

"It's been a challenge," Grimm said. "I've been here three years and we've had a lot of growth over the last two years and when we post jobs most of the applicants will come from afar -- California, down south, Connecticut and Boston as well. But rarely do you find a candidate here within Rhode Island."

Epivax, Lifespan and countless other high tech employers are dealing with a so-called "skills deficit"-- a workforce that isn't trained for the jobs that are available. It isn't a new problem, and efforts have been underway for a while to address it. One of the earliest attempts was through Governor Don Carcieri's Workforce Board, which offers training grants to the unemployed and underemployed and tries to match those in need of work with available jobs.

"You can buy the best equipment," Carcieri recently said of the challenge at an annual Workforce Board meeting. "You can buy all the latest technology, all the latest software but if you don't have the best people who are trained in knowing what has to be done and are dedicated to the success of the organization you're not going to have a successful business. So it's all about people."

In the past five years the Workforce Board has handed out $12 million in matching grants to help businesses train their own workers. Bob Burke, owner of Pot Au Feu Restaurant, used one of the grants to produce a videotape to help train new and current employees.

"You can imagine how many times we've trained someone to make Bernaise sauce and that of course takes a lot of time by the chef and takes time away from his other duties to train somebody on that," he explained. "Well now they're able to watch a video and actually learn how to do that process along with all the hundreds of other processes that we have at the restaurant."

The state's colleges and universities have also stepped up to the plate, adding dozens of career track courses, certification programs and degrees.

In a windowless classroom on the Lincoln campus of the Community College of Rhode Island a couple of dozen students are training in radiography - acquiring the skills to become x-ray technicians. There are lots of jobs, which is why Kathy Cole is here. She's a single mom who currently works as a teaching assistant, but she's hoping for a better salary.

"I became a radiographer because I knew I was interested in science and I knew I was interested in health," she said. "But I wanted to be trained and employable in a shorter amount of time than needing a four or six-year degree."

The community college system also offers training in web design, computer programming, biotechnology and energy conservation, to mention just a few. The University of Rhode Island, Bryant, Brown and Roger Williams Universities offer courses in the biosciences. And the Rhode Island department of Labor and Training has funneled hundreds of unemployed workers through an array of training programs. But even with all of this, there is still a skills deficit. That's because most of the available jobs are in the emerging knowledge-based economy. Kathy Shields of the Tech Collective, a high tech industry association, says it will take a long time to re-train Rhode Island workers who come from a very different employment tradition.

"I think it's probably coming from the tradition of the manufacturing industry," she said. "Folks have been in a lot of positions for a long time so they didn't continue their learning."

Shields advises all workers -- even those with jobs -- to keep their skills current because in the event of a layoff they quickly become outdated.

"The message is if you're still in a position today, make sure you are as trained and skilled up to the highest level that you can be in the position you're in," she said. "And also I highly recommend that folks get involved in networking and making sure your connections are available too. Because knowing the right person is just as important in getting the next job."

So the moral of the story is this: it isn't just who you know anymore, it's what you know. And if you don't have the skills employers need they'll go out of state to find people who do.